A response to critics #3: independent schools

One month ago, I published a historical critique of progressive education entitled Progressively Worse. It has two essential arguments. Firstly, from the 1960s onwards progressive education became a powerful orthodoxy within the state education system. Secondly, it has failed to improve the quality of education in our schools.

This is the third in a series of blogs responding to the criticism Progressively Worse has received so far. To read the first and second blogs, click here and here.

Progressively Worse is not about independent schools, but the independent sector does warrant a small mention in the conclusion. I write:

Independent schools have by no means been impervious to progressive education, but compared to the state sector, they have withstood the wilder extremes of the movement.

I continue that this essential traditionalism is one of the major reasons for the sustained success of independent schools. This argument is prefaced by a statement which provoked the anger of Debra Kidd and her followers:


Note from the tweet, Kidd came to the verdict that my book is ‘tosh’ a full six days before it was published. This was on the basis of the Amazon ‘Look Inside’ option – a fair indication that Kidd read the above extract in isolation. So allow me to contextualise.

British independent schools are respected and replicated the world over. Last summer, it was reported that British private schools now have 29 overseas campuses, educating some 18,784 pupils. In addition, there are currently 25,912 non-British pupils whose parents live abroad being sent to Independent Schools Council schools (5% of the total), and the numbers are growing – particularly from Russian, Chinese and Nigerian pupils. It would be churlish not to consider the possibility that these schools might be doing something right.

Harrow International School Bangkok: replicated around the world

Harrow International School Bangkok: replicated around the world

Secondly, if you read the historical chapters of my book, it provides basis for the claim that state maintained schools have been a ‘persistent source of national embarrassment’. Long before PISA rankings laid bare the relative underperformance of British schoolchildren, Sig Prais was reaching the same conclusion at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Just to give one example, in 1988, he asked a comparable group of 14 year olds the same set of maths questions in Japan and Britain. Amongst Japanese children, 48 per cent could solve a simple algebraic equation, which only 22 per cent of British children could solve. He reached similar conclusions comparing British schoolchildren to German.

In 1983, the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) introduced a new question to their survey: ‘How would you compare the overall standards of education in schools today with the standards when you were at school?’ Only 39% thought standards had improved. The following year, this number dropped to 37%. From then on, BSAS stopped asking the question. The claim I made in the conclusion was, in part, a historical one. Had Kidd read the preceding chapters of Progressively Worse, I hope she would have realised it was not without basis.

Many critics responded to my claim by referencing the PISA ‘In Focus’ report, Private schools: Who benefits?. This report shows that if one accounts for socio-economic background amongst British pupils, there is no difference in performance at private schools compared to state schools. Except that it does not show this. The adjusted figures calculated by PISA show pupil performance ‘After accounting for student background characteristics, school autonomy and school competition for students.’ How one devises a model to account for such differences, I have no idea.

Also, were it really the case that British pupils do just as well at state schools than at private schools, do you not think money-savvy parents would have noticed by now? A 2012 survey commissioned by the ISC found that 57% of parents surveyed would educate their child privately if they had the financial means. Of all the adults questioned, 59% said that educational standards in state schools are lower than in fee-paying schools, while 23% said they are about the same. Only 6% claimed standards are higher in state schools. Additionally, the evidence of the PISA report is at variance with the findings of Prof Jesson, who in 2005 found that pupils scoring level 5 in Key Stage 2 Sats were three times more likely to go on to gain three As at A-level if they went on to be educated independently.

Independent schools: elimination is not the answer. Emulation is.

Independent schools: elimination is not the answer. Emulation is.

I realise that I am painting in broad brush strokes, and am fully aware that in many areas of England there are state schools which are just as good as independent alternatives. After Kidd tweeted the extract from my book, many other tweachers invited me to come and visit their schools which are far from embarrassing. This was misinterpreting what I wrote: I was making an observation about the broad trends of teaching fashions within state and independent schools. It was not aimed at particular examples.

Allow me to emphasise, I am not listing all of this information because I am some staunch advocate of private schools. I am not. I would dearly like to see their hold on public life weakened during my lifetime. However, I believe that the best way to achieve this is for state schools not to resent them, but to emulate them.


~ by goodbyemisterhunter on May 30, 2014.

11 Responses to “A response to critics #3: independent schools”

  1. Nice try, but I think the independent sector gets a little more than ‘a small mention in the conclusion’.

  2. To attribute the success of children attending independent schools to a particular pedagogy is, I think, a huge leap. I would have thought that the fact that the parents of independently educated children are more likely to have been university educated is a greater cause for their success. University education and he ability to pay private school fees, in turn, indicates greater access to all manner of resources at home.

    I thought that your previous rebuttals were very strong, but citing a parent opinion poll from a few years ago in mitigation is a weak defence. Chiefly, it does not bear any comment on their pedagogy. The fact that parents polled think educational standards are higher, across the whole country, in independent schools is neither here nor there. How on earth would they know? How many independent schools and state schools have they visited? And are they trained in spotting the mechanisms that help learning work, unbiased to any school of instruction? Or, perhaps, they see that successful people often tend to have been privately educated, and so just assume that they are doing something that state schools aren’t.

    Again, to think that traditionalist teaching methods are that ‘something’ is a pretty random selection from the bag of variables.

    You raise a good question, though, if pedagogy is irrelevant here: why do ‘money savvy parents’ send their children to private schools if they would do just as well at a state school? I think that it is for a whole host of advantages that one gains from attending such an institution. Surrounding your child with the offspring of successful people is far more likely to cement them into a network of movers and shakers. And, however far we’ve come with equality, having the ‘right’ school on your CV is certainly still a benefit.

    I’m really looking forward to reading your book since, having recently trained, I have been fed an almost exclusively progressive diet. As the year has gone in, I’m convinced that the children deserve more balance, and have a right to rich knowledge.

    But I don’t think that kids from private schools do better because of pedagogy.

  3. “How one devises a model to account for such differences, I have no idea.” < Hierarchical linear modelling.

  4. “Also, were it really the case that British pupils do just as well at state schools than at private schools, do you not think money-savvy parents would have noticed by now?” < They do notice. But results is not the only (arguably, not even the main) reason why they send their children to private schools. This is why you have parts of the country where value-added for children in the same income/attainment bracket as their child is at least equal in a state school nearer to people's homes, and yet they still send their child to private school.

    Also, why should I believe private school parents are 'money-savvy'?

    • There are many different private schools. Some very much prioritise the extra curricular and others academic results, so yes parents may well choose private even if they thought academically schools were similar.
      However, it also makes sense that parents are fairly unaware of the actual relative merits of local schools at a given time but are aware of a general trend.

  5. A further irony is that, in fact, many private schools in fact deploy extremely ‘progressive’ pedagogy, very successfully. This is particularly noticeable in terms of the time and status they allot to talk in the classroom, including collaborative and dialogic talk for learning. Apart from personal observation and experience from the independent sector located in my ‘patch’ in SW London, I am also here referencing Prof Neil Mercer of the Thinking Together research project at Cambridge University. He has described the ongoing challenges of developing talk in the state system considering its diminished status in the new National Curriculum. But of course the independent sector needs not trouble itself with the National Curriculum, being exempt from following it.

  6. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  7. I am really interested in the debate over the general quality of state over private because of my own experiences as a private school teacher. I know that by and large students we recruit for sixth form from the state sector have lower GCSE grades relative to their potential. I know that when our management recruit teachers they expect higher grades from privately educated candidates, much as with the arguments over university entrance. I also see the outcomes of the very bright members of my extended family and close friends and can’t get over how few get strings of A*s at GCSE when state educated. There has seemed to be a lack of concern to stretch the top end, probably because of different accountability concerns (one of my major accountability measures is how many A *s my class get.)
    I do wonder if it can depend what you measure. While all teachers seem pretty focused on getting students good exam results, it is performance in these public exams where I notice a difference between private and state.
    Of course I appreciate that I am about to get torched for saying these things because they are indeed just my own subjective experiences and there is huge variability within both sectors. However, I need to see more than one Pisa study even with ‘hierarchical linear modelling’ to convince me that my own experiences are unrepresentative.

  8. […] that I could find was actually in a scurrilous tweet from Debra Kidd, shown in Robert’s third response to his critics. Debra, shockingly for a teacher, uses a four-letter-word to describe Robert’s […]

  9. Robert, oddly on one day the whole book was available on amazon’s Look Inside facility – an error that was quickly rectified but not so quickly that I didn’t have the opportunity to read the whole text. To point to concerns in 1988 and 1983 as proof that secondary schools are failing ignores the subsequent thirty years of consistent improvement. This is a very weak argument indeed. And you have, of course, failed to point out that state schools outperform independent schools on the PISA tests. Such lazy research is disappointing for anyone, but irresponsible for one working for a think tank. So yes, I stand by my four letter word. Tosh.

  10. Having read this I believed it was extremely enlightening.

    I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this
    informative article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments.
    But so what, it was still worth it!

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